Why we should end the war on drugs

By Edward Peckston, Nov 15, 2018 4:11

OULD secretary for MT 2018, Edd Peckston, argues that we need to end the war on drugs now, in a well researched article with more citations than my average tutorial essay:

The ‘War on Drugs’ is a failure. Hard-line policies first enacted by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s have failed to prevent the supply of illegal substances. Indeed, drug use in the United States has increased since the 1990s, despite harsh sentencing laws[1]. According to a freedom of information request by Fox News, the War on Drugs has been carried out at cost of trillions of dollars globally [2], with hundreds of thousands estimated to have been killed as a result of the global illegal drug trade [3]. This is a huge cost to bear and is damning of the global effort to quash the illegal drug trade. There are two solutions to this ongoing crisis. On the one hand, we could simply decriminalise the use of illegal substances, while continuing to pursue their producers. The other solution is a more radical one, namely legalisation. I will attempt to argue that the latter solution is the better, as it provides addicts with an avenue to seek assistance without fear of legal consequences, while also regulating the market, keeping users safe from contaminated substances  and removing the market from the monopoly of criminals.

A thorough examination of the cost of the war on drugs is, however, first required. While the UK is by no means even close to the US in terms of what it spends on anti-drug policies, expenditure on anti-drug policies between 2014-2015 was £1.6 billion per annum [4]. In these times of financial uncertainty and austerity, surely such a gargantuan sum ought to be spent on public services, such as schools and the NHS? Given the continued widespread availability of illegal substances on Britain’s streets, this represents a simply unacceptable waste of public funds. By contrast, the Mexican drug lord, ‘El Chapo’, is estimated to have made at least $14 billion through his drug-related exploits, according to the US Department of Justice[5]. The sheer quantity of money generated by the global drug trade and the money that is spent attempting to combat it is simply beyond comprehension. Global governments would be better served taxing this in a regulated market. An example of the benefits of this can be seen in the State of Colorado, which raked in over $506 million from 2014-2017 through taxation of marijuana alone[6]. The potential revenue from a regulated drug market cannot simply be ignored and would benefit the taxpayer more than the current destructive War on Drugs.

There is, however, the valid concern that a government should not be regulating and, indeed, taxing something that can cause harm to its citizens. This argument can be countered by the fact that the government already taxes harmful substances, namely, to quote the Oasis album, cigarettes and alcohol. A 2010 study found that alcohol is the most dangerous drug in Britain, more dangerous in fact than heroin and crack[7]. Is this policy criticised? Only by those who oppose sin taxes. If you follow first counter-argument, then you must also argue that the government should crack down on alcohol use.

Connected to this argument is the idea that legalisation or decriminalisation would merely lead to more people using and abusing illegal substances . This argument is perhaps a more sophisticated one and indeed it can be justified by the widespread use of marijuana in areas where its use has been legalised or decriminalised, but it is undermined by the experience of Portugal. Portugal decriminalised drug use in 2001 and has since seen a reduction in heroin use from 100,000 to 25,000 in 2015[8], accompanied by a reduction of the HIV infection rate from 104.2 new cases per million in 2000 to 4.2 cases per million in 2015[9]. The cultural shift that drug decriminalisation in Portugal has created has led to drug abuse being seen not as a crime, but as a disease. Addicts are helped, not imprisoned. This is a cultural shift that the UK and US ought to emulate in their efforts to tackle drug addiction.

However successful the Portuguese policy has been, decriminalisation does not go far enough. Only legalisation removes the monopoly of drug production from the hands of criminals and provides legal, regulated routes for the manufacture and supply of drugs. Cartels have not been affected by the near-military offensive against them called for by the War on Drugs policy. We will defeat them by removing their source of income, forcing them into the regulated market where they can be controlled. While it is of course impossible to entirely remove criminality from the equation, as continued cigarette smuggling shows, we ought to take steps to reduce the amount of crime to the greatest possible extent. That much we owe the people of Columbia who have been at war with the Narcos for generations now.

Legalisation, therefore, is the most viable solution. It reduces the cost to the taxpayer, while also decriminalising addicts, and eliminating the cartels’ monopoly in the market. Liberal Democrats believe in evidence-based policy grounded on principles of liberalism. This solution fulfils the first principle in that it takes into account the empirical evidence of the failure of the War on Drugs, while the second principle is fulfilled by liberating addicts and casual users from the oppressive label of criminality, providing them with a safer, regulated market supply of drugs with a clear avenue of help, funded by the potential massive tax revenue. A radical re-think of drugs policy is needed in the West and this is the first step in the right direction.


[1] https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2015/08/federal-drug-sentencing-laws-bring-high-cost-low-return

[2] https://www.vox.com/cards/war-on-drugs-marijuana-cocaine-heroin-meth/war-on-drugs-cost-spending

[3] https://colombiareports.com/the-price-of-colombias-drug-war/

[4] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/anti-drug-policy-government-16-billion-theresa-may-usage-levels-illicit-illegal-a7881356.html

[5] https://www.forbes.com/sites/doliaestevez/2017/01/25/does-mexican-drug-lord-el-chapo-guzman-have-the-14-billion-the-u-s-wants-from-him/#257369fc669b

[6] https://money.cnn.com/2017/07/19/news/colorado-marijuana-tax-revenue/index.html

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/nov/01/alcohol-more-harmful-than-heroin-crack

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/22/opinion/sunday/portugal-drug-decriminalization.html

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/dec/05/portugals-radical-drugs-policy-is-working-why-hasnt-the-world-copied-it

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